- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Supreme Court came to a rare degree of consensus on Monday. Police do not violate the Fourth Amendment by ramming criminals’ cars in high-speed chases, the justices found in an 8-1 decision. It’s common sense that law enforcers should use force against those who put others in danger.

In the case, Victor Harris initiated a nighttime chase in Georgia that exceeded 85 mph. He crossed double-yellow center lines, ran two red lights and forced other cars to take evasive action. In a shopping-center parking lot, police vehicles nearly surrounded Mr. Harris, but he escaped, colliding with one in the process.

About 10 miles into the ordeal, Coweta County Deputy Timothy Scott got permission to spin Mr. Harris’ car off the road. The accident left Mr. Harris a quadriplegic, and he sued. The ram, he argued, constituted excessive force and thus unreasonable search and seizure. Two videos, now available on the Supreme Court’s Web site, captured the chase.

As Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion stated, “it is clear from the videotape that [Mr. Harris] posed an actual and imminent threat to the lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, to other civilian motorists, and to the officers involved in the case.” As such, the court had “little difficulty in concluding it was reasonable for [Deputy] Scott to take the action that he did.” The court deserves credit for ruling correctly by such a wide margin, yet the case shows how frivolous claims often make it too far through our justice system. Such a lawsuit should not have reached the nation’s highest judiciary.

In district court, Deputy Scott requested a summary judgment — that is, he argued no relevant facts were genuinely disputed, so no jury trial was necessary. As an officer who acted within his duties, he was immune from lawsuits. The judge disagreed, and the officer appealed.

The 11th Circuit’s ruling also favored a jury trial, on the grounds that a “high-speed chase… does not amount to the ‘substantial threat’ of imminent physical harm” required to justify deadly force.

Even at the Supreme Court, stocked with nine of America’s top legal minds, Mr. Harris found an ally in Justice John Paul Stevens. In his dissent, the justice argued that other motorists were not in danger because they heard the police sirens and pulled over, and because of Mr. Harris’ reluctance to collide head-on with other vehicles.

Perhaps the most disastrous of Justice Stevens’ suggestions was that the officers should have abandoned the chase. As the majority pointed out, a practice of abandoning pursuits that become dangerous only encourages criminals to reach that threshold.

The Supreme Court corrected the wrongs of two lower courts. Unfortunately, those lower courts — and Justice Stevens’ dissent — show how American jurisprudence often abandons common sense.

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